Book Reviews: Tinfoil Crowns by Erin Jones and Taking Chances by Kelsey Abrams

Tinfoil Crowns
Erin Jones
Flux, May 2019
ISBN 978-1-63583-032-3
Trade Paperback

Fit is tearing me in two. Wounds from warring emotions: fury, disbelief and a deeply-buried desire to forgive, are palpable and painful. Part of me needs to give her a hug.

Vehement denial that horrific symptoms may manifest from a mental illness is easy to understand. Unless you’ve been through it or witnessed it, first-hand. With knowledge gleaned, I also easily imagine shaking this young lady by her shoulders.

All moms make mistakes. And, at first, it seems as if Fit and Frankie’s mother messed up big-time. Even if she was suffering from postpartum problems, solo.

Frankie’s willingness to forgive should surprise no one. Fit’s younger brother is clearly a sweet kid, and the talented artist has never been one to hold a grudge.

Dubs, the dad that witnessed his daughter’s downfall, then took in her two tiny children, well, he’s somewhere in the middle. He may not want to wholly wrap his mind around the intricacies of psychosis, but he may have to, if he wants to hold onto his belief that his beloved off-spring was honestly unable to control her actions, or even ask for assistance.

When the day arrives for mom to move into the already crowded apartment, Frankie and Dubs are annoyingly overjoyed. Grim determination keeps Fit from feeling anything, aside from a simmering anger and overall sense of betrayal. Besides, she’s got no time for this, she is about to be big.

An agent in New York City saw his niece sporting jewelry she’d crafted from tinfoil, entranced by one of Fit’s You-Tube videos. He decided then and there that Fitted Sheet would be his next client. And it is here that our Fit manages to take self-absorption to a whole new level.

Even for a seventeen-year-old with sparkly stars in her eyes, who has happily left logic at the door. And, ok, it is not her role to be skeptical of the money man from the City, particularly since she’s seen him catapult a few of her favorite You-Tubers to fame; but, right now, this chick isn’t hearing anyone. And we don’t always know what is best at such a tender, impressionable, stubborn stage in life.

On the one hand, it may seem as if there’s nothing funny about psychiatric disorders. But, if we need to laugh at ourselves, then it would stand to reason that mental illness and humor are not mutually exclusive. Not an easy thought to convey. Ms. Jones broaches this brilliantly, in a Broad-City style that I found awesomely authentic. So happy that I’ll be able to share this with ‘my’ students before graduation!

Reviewed by jv poore, May 2019.

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Taking Chances: A Grace Story
Second Chance Ranch
Kelsey Abrams
Jolly Fish Press, January 2018
ISBN 978-1-63163-149-8
Trade Paperback

This review demands to be written a bit differently. Perhaps by listing the things I love, from the very beginning. No. Before that, even. Let’s talk about the cover and title of the third book I’ve read from the Second Chance Ranch series. An atypical Juvenile Fiction front shows a disheveled and obviously distressed young girl clinging to a cat. The police car parked behind, perfectly pulls it together to pique my interest.

The title means two things, absolutely delightful! Chances, in this case, is an award-winning, purebred Persian. Grace Ramirez is the risk-taker. Sibling support from her twin and their two older sisters, sees that she stays somewhat unscathed. But, when Grace agrees to take over Miz Ida’s chores for two weeks…well, even the Ramirez girls may not be a match for all of that gardening, plus guarding the fancy feline.

Taking Chances: A Grace Story moves as quickly as the main character without feeling rushed or jumbled. It’s impossible not to love the impulsive little girl with the world’s biggest heart and it is quite a treat to watch her work so hard to be a better person.

Reviewed by jv poore, August 2018.

Book Reviews: Exo by Fonda Lee, R.I.P. Eliza Hart by Alyssa Sheinmel and The Forgetting by Sharon Cameron

Exo
Fonda Lee
Scholastic Press, February 2017
ISBN 978-0-545-93343-8
Hardcover

Peace Day may be quickly approaching, but a battle is about to go down while something more sinister, bigger, bubbles beneath. Tension between the Global Security & Pacification Forces (SecPac) and humans is palpable; the humans’ hatred, disgust and raw fury with the zhree is tangible, yet they plan to celebrate a century of coexistence.  Coexistence applies to the fifteen percent of mankind approved to exist among the zhree.  The remaining eighty-five percent faded into shadows of themselves or morphed into fierce, determined resistance fighters.

Having survived the Hardening process that transforms a zhree-approved human child into an exo, the only son of the Prime Liaison appears as a firmly committed SecPac soldier.  Donovan is confident and unquestioning in his fight against human rebels; until a raid goes wrong.  Held hostage where humans are the apex species, his perspective shifts.  It becomes impossible to see the individuals around him as the cohesive, carbon-copy-collection he has been fighting against.  What he fought for blurs out of focus.  Who he really is becomes crystal clear: not human enough for mankind, “nothing but human” to the zhree. Although it feels as if everything is different now, one thing is very much the same: the entire planet is in danger and Donovan is helpless as a hostage.

Exo is a brilliant example of Science-Fiction feeling oh-so-real.  Ms. Lee packs powerful punches in action scenes, soothes with sympathy in some situations, but bites with wit and humor in others.  Entertaining, empathy evoking, surprisingly relatable and utterly thought provoking, this is a book for everyone; not just Science-Fiction fans.

Reviewed by jv poore, February 2017.

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R.I.P Eliza Hart
Alyssa Sheinmel
Scholastic Press, December 2017
ISBN 978-0-338-08762-8
Hardcover

The appeal of the convenient, all-access “…narrow streets on the narrow island of Manhattan” is almost irrelevant for someone uncomfortable (at best) in enclosed spaces. Hopeful that her home state would help her open doors that claustrophobia kept firmly closed, Ellie accepts a scholarship to attend a tiny boarding school buffered by redwoods, opening wide above the Pacific Ocean.

Alone, Ellie explores the other dorms. A parental accompaniment would have been cool, but her issues have taken up too much of their time anyway. She will make friends here, none of these students know of her problems. Actually, she even sees a name she knows and suddenly, Ellie has something to look forward to: reconnecting with Eliza Hart.

Awkwardness should be the worse-case-scenario. Eliza may not have fond memories of her former childhood friend, she may not even remember Ellie at all. Appearing angry and almost personally offended that Ellie dare approach her, Eliza obviously loathes Ellie. In fact, she’s already told everyone on campus that Ellie is a vicious, pathological liar and students should simply steer clear.

Stunned, shattered, struggling with her sanity, Ellie has to know why. Even as Eliza’s body is recovered from the cliffside and speculations swirl around campus, Ellie cannot stop searching for answers. As she uncovers Eliza’s best kept secret, Ellie’s own repression is revealed, changing her perspective on absolutely everything.

R.I.P. Eliza Hart is an outstanding YA novel because, as narrators of their own stories, Eliza and Ellie explain actualities of mental illness in a way that everyone can understand and empathize with. Misconceptions, such as medicine plus therapy equal a cure, are corrected…without sounding like a somber after-school-special. And the awesome element of something decidedly different, redwood burl poachers.

Reviewed by jv poore, November 2017.

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The Forgetting
Sharon Cameron
Scholastic Press, September 2016
ISBN 978-0-545-94521-9
Hardcover

Imagine awaking with no knowledge of who you are. You don’t know your name, or age.  None of your surroundings are familiar. The distraught children barricaded inside with you are strangers, but the look of terror covering each little face reflects how you feel. They, too, have Forgotten.

In the white-walled world of Canaan, you carry your life story with you in the most literal way: hand-written in a journal kept close (if not tethered) at all times.  Every moment lived will be written down accurately and truthfully.  When one journal is filled, it is maintained in the Archives. Histories—both individual and collective—are compiled and preserved here; a necessity based on an inexplicable, yet infallible, occurrence that robs the residents of their memories every twelve years.

Every rule has an exception and here, it is Nadia.  Having been a child during her first Forgetting, she still realized how different she was.  She did not Forget.  Admirably altruistic, cunning and courageous, this character could carry the story.  A grudging acceptance to partner with Gray, the Glassblower’s Son, subtly shows her softer side and adds a bit more urgency and suspense to an already captivating caper.

The real scoop is revealed like ripples in a pond. The grab-your-attention-splash of the impending Forgetting expands into a more complex mystery.  Perhaps it is the limited memory, or maybe life without modern conveniences keeps people too busy to ponder, but; no one seems to question the wall around the city.  Again, except for Nadia.  She’s been over the wall and noted differences.  In her city, stone is jagged—as if freshly broken or cut.  The other side of wall has stone that has been worn smooth.  She wonders, “…does the wall protect us, or keep us in?”

Already intrigued by the idea of a periodic, mass-memory-erase, I became completely captivated considering circumstances that could have resulted in the walled city.  My wildest imagination is not even comparable to Ms. Cameron’s creative genius; I was astounded.

Reviewed by jv poore, May 2017.

Book Reviews: Where Hope Begins by Alysia Sofios with Caitlin Rother and A Conspiracy of Ravens by Terrence McCauley

Where Hope Begins
Alysia Sofios with Caitlin Rother
Pocket Books, September 2009
ISBN: 978-1-4391-3150-3
Hardcover

This is an interesting and at the same time, an appalling story. How is it that even relatively uneducated people, mostly women, can succumb to such abuse for years without speaking up? After all, this family, under the destructive thumb of their patriarch, Marcus Wesson, wasn’t living in some isolated desert camp. They lived in a home in an urban center, Fresno, California. Some of them worked, even if most never went to school and while they were obviously in thrall to an evil man, some of them, especially Marcus’ wife, Elizabeth, should have spoken out.

It is also hard to accept that this “family” was not known to local authorities.

Reporter Alysia Sofios is assigned to a case of mass murder of nine children in their home. She soon breaks protocol by becoming intimately involved with the surviving family, helping them create a more normal life. The book is the story of that deepening involvement and the reporter’s gradual entanglement with the Wessons. Finally, although her intentions are benign, echoes of Marcus Wesson’s control and manipulation of his offspring seem to be descending on Alysia and her decisions regarding the family going forward.

Ultimately, the emotional/straightforward style of the narrative becomes a little tedious. Still this is a story well-told and should be examined by members of every social service agency in the country where suspicions of out-of-the ordinary family situations arise.

Reviewed by Carl Brookins, August 2017.
http://www.carlbrookins.com http://agora2.blogspot.com
The Case of the Purloined Painting, The Case of the Great Train Robbery, Reunion, Red Sky.

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A Conspiracy of Ravens
James Hicks Series #3
Terrence McCauley
Polis Books, September 2017
ISBN: 978-1943818716
Trade Paperback

A classic thriller from an experienced, award-winning thriller writer. This is by no means McCauley’s first rodeo. I do confess that while the link of the title to an earlier book, A Murder of Crows, is apparent, the meaning of the title in the context of this novel is obscure to me.

The story is another fraught episode in the continuing saga of James Hicks, now Dean of a super-secret intelligence operation, privately funded, operating as much as possible in secret from somewhere in the Northeast. The group is called The University. Most of the operatives and executives are labeled with college-centric titles. Hence, the former Dean of the agency is called the Trustee.

Mr. Hicks leads a rambunctious organization of marvelously talented shooters, mission planners, analysts, translators and the most advanced technicians in the world. This University operates a highly sophisticated satellite system designed to monitor and counter both friendly (CIA) and unfriendly (China, Russian GRU) computer and surveillance, banking and law enforcement systems.

Ducking drone-carried bombs, machine and shotgun-toting killers, Hicks zooms about the world, thwarting killers, meting out hard-fisted lethal justice, all with the help of a wonderfully varied cadre of close and talented associates.

The characters are distinct, consistent, lethal and fit into the thriller mode comfortably. For fans of this kind of crime novel, everything is presented in plain, straightforward, brutal and realistic language. The one truly intriguing and off-kilter character, Roger Cobb, plays an unusual, really close, friend of Dean James Hicks, a character worth a closer look.

Reviewed by Carl Brookins, November 2017.
http://www.carlbrookins.com http://agora2.blogspot.com
The Case of the Purloined Painting, The Case of the Great Train Robbery, Reunion, Red Sky.

Book Review: The Trees Beneath Us by Darren R. Leo

the-trees-beneath-usThe Trees Beneath Us
Darren R. Leo
Introduction by Craig Childs
Stark House Press, July 2015
ISBN: 978-1-9335-8673-1
Trade Paperback

This is a most unusual book.  It is as much memoir as it is fiction, for one thing.

The introduction includes this quote from Thoreau:  “If you are ready to leave father and mother, and brother and sister, and wife and child and friends, and never see them again; if you have paid your debts, and made your will, and settled all your affairs, and are a free man:  then you are ready for a walk.”  The author later says “Would Thoreau be admired if he never left Walden Pond?”
The protagonist, Finn, sees himself thusly:  “Stubbornness had long been described as one of my greatest attributes or flaws.”  As did the author, Finn decides to hike the Appalachian Trail.  Early in his trek, he says:  “I was reacquainting with the wilderness like running into an old girlfriend I had not seen in years…  Thousands of people hiked big chunks of the trail every year.  A few hundred would walk its entirety.  Some large number of people with packs crossed that highway and disappeared through the cut.  Each had a purpose.  Some had dreams.  All had reasons.”  Finn’s reason appears to be contemplation of his life till then, and the natural life around him brings him “occasional moments of clarity and insights.”  He is working through grief, love and loss, having lost his job, his health, and his son.

A lapsed Catholic, 44 years old, with very mixed feelings about the deity and life itself, Finn has been diagnosed as suffering from depression, bipolar, at times suicidal; he has an ex-wife, what he describes as three or four children, and is living with a woman who loves him and who he loves, Penelope, or Penny, who he refers to as his BSW (beautiful sunny woman).  His descriptions of the natural world are gorgeous, e.g., he sees small yellow butterflies hovering “like lemon colored clouds” as well as an “achingly beautiful butterfly that started bright sky blue and faded to deep inky darkness . .  . like twilight captured on a wing.”

On his journey, which goes on for almost 1,500 miles, over a period of months, during most of which he does not contact any of his family members, he reflects on his past.  A running motif seems to be “bad news doesn’t travel through trees.”

This is a book which will stay with the reader long after the last page has been read, and it is recommended.

Reviewed by Gloria Feit, July 2016.

Book Review: Unlocked by Margo Kelly

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Title: Unlocked
Author: Margo Kelly
Publisher: Merit Press

Publication Date: October 1, 2016
Genres: Mystery, Thriller, Young Adult

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unlockedUnlocked
Margo Kelly
Merit Press, October 2016
ISBN 978-1-4405-9359-8
Hardcover

From the publisher—

A provocative thriller involving hypnosis, mystery, love, and friendship!

Someone has been moving the stuffed pink elephant in Hannah’s room. She thinks. And ants crawl over her hands, across the steering wheel, all the time. Don’t they? They’re what made her crash the car on the way home from the fair, and she wouldn’t have freaked out, wouldn’t have caused her friend’s death, for no reason. But she doesn’t know if a person is messing with her, if the paranormal is messing with her–or if she’s just going psychotic like her dad before her.

When her friends bail, Hannah is left floundering. Not even her boyfriend Manny believes her, and new girl Chelsea is practically replacing her at school. Only artsy outsider and self-proclaimed occult expert, Plug, agrees to help Hannah find out the truth about hypnosis and demons, and even he can’t help Hannah reclaim her mind from whatever’s taking over. She’ll have to do that herself if she wants to save her friends, her mom and herself.

Some reviews are more difficult to write than others for a variety of reasons. In this case, I was affected by the premise of Hannah’s story.

I’m not speaking from personal experience, thank heavens, but I think it must be so very hard to believe you’re losing your mind, especially when you’ve sen it in your family, giving the possibility a lot of credence. Imagine, then, how much worse it must be when Hannah has to cope with the fact that she has killed a friend when in the grip of one of these episodes.

Knowing that there might be other explanations for what’s happening to her isn’t exactly comforting and the way her classmates distance themselves from her doesn’t help. It seems there are very few people in Hannah’s court but she at least has Plug, a guy who’s far more reliable and caring than she could have expected. With his help, Hannah will soon find that the demons are far worse than she feared but that she has an inner strength that just might save her.

Hannah is a girl I can like, very vulnerable but resilient, but it’s her new friends who really captured me. Plug, Nick and Kyla are refreshing and loyal and, above all, they have faith in Hannah.

Although Ms. Kelly has done a fine job with an emotionally wrenching topic, I do have to say I wasn’t crazy about the structure of the book, specifically the very lengthy chapters. I prefer being able to come to a natural stop more often (I hate putting a book down in the middle of a chapter) and that’s especially true with such an intense story; I need a break sometimes. Still, Ms. Kelly has caught my attention with Unlocked and I’m looking forward to seeing more from her.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, September 2016.

About the Author

margo-kellyMargo Kelly is a native of the Northwest and currently resides in Idaho. A veteran public speaker, Margo is now actively pursuing her love of writing. Her critically acclaimed debut, Who R U Really?, was published by Merit Press (an imprint of F+W Media) in 2014. Her second novel, Unlocked, will be published by Merit Press in October 2016. Margo welcomes opportunities to speak to youth groups, library groups, and book clubs.

Margo Kelly loves to be scared … when she’s reading a good book, watching a good movie, or suffering from the hiccups. She loves writing thrillers for young adults and hopes her stories give you the goose bumps or the itchies or the desire to rethink everyday things. Margo is represented by the not-so-scary, but totally awesome, Brianne Johnson of Writers House.

Author Links:

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Book Review: Breaking Butterflies by M. Anjelais

Breaking ButterfliesBreaking Butterflies
M. Anjelais
Chicken House, August 2014
ISBN: 978-0-545-66766-1
Hardcover

When we think of arranged marriages, what usually comes to mind are child brides in foreign countries or royalty in olden days. For Sphinx and Cadence, things were different, very much so, in fact. Their connection began when their mothers, Sarah and Leigh, met when they were seven. Leigh was the leader, Sarah the follower. As their friendship blossomed, Leigh began scripting everything that would happen to them, beginning with what they’d have as careers, that Sarah would have a girl, while she would have a boy and the two would bond, eventually marrying and provide another connected generation.

Leigh’s plan worked until it didn’t. Both married and got pregnant two months apart. Leigh had a boy, Sarah a girl and they were raised together. Like their moms, one took the lead, the other became a follower. Cadence thought up the best games and Spinx was happy to follow. Happy until the day Cadence took out a knife and sliced her face open.

Sarah’s father was furious, more at not heeding his suspicions about Cadence, raised when at age five, the boy crushed a butterfly and showed neither emotion or remorse. Leigh was devastated and hauled her son off to her house in England where her marriage soon fell apart.

Fast forward to when the kids are sixteen. Spinx has a modest social life, but has never had a boyfriend. She’s mostly content playing soccer and spending time with her girlfriends. Every morning, however, she sees the thin scar on her cheek before applying concealer and it reminds her of Cadence and her still conflicted feelings about him and what he said the day it happened.

A phone call from Leigh, who has remained friends with Sarah, starts in motion a strange journey for Spinx, one that’s both physical and emotional. Cadence has an aggressive form of leukemia and wants her to come see him before he dies. Despite her fear, she realizes that something inside is telling her she has to do this, so she and Sarah agree to come to England for one week.

Despite Cadence’s abruptness and rudeness, Spinx comes to believe that coming was the right thing to do and when it’s time to go, she convinces her mother to let her stay until Cadence dies.

What transpires as she waits for his passing, particularly in terms of her growing insight and understanding make for a compelling read. I expected this to be more of a horror story, but it’s sad and Spinx’s growing awareness of how intertwined the two of them really are is quite insightful, particularly in terms of portraying Cadence and what’s really wrong with him.

Reviewed by John R. Clark, MLIS, July 2016.

Book Review: Schizo by Nic Sheff

SchizoSchizo
Nic Sheff
Philomel Books, September 2014
ISBN 978-0-399-16437-8
Hardcover

Miles Cole will steal your heart. Unwittingly and apologetically, he’ll shatter it. With determination and pride, he’ll help to piece it together with tentative hope. This 16-year old boy is sweet, compassionate and justifiably troubled. Diagnosed with schizophrenia, his life teeters between reality and delusions, as a cacophony of medications race through his veins and scorch the lining of his stomach.

Mr. Sheff cleverly allows Miles tells his own story. In doing so, Miles’ observations identify and clarify surprising symptoms of this mental disorder providing readers with a rare glimpse of the self-loathing, ricocheting thoughts that constantly plague a riddled mind. Brilliantly, he illuminates the stigma of the psychosis with an almost casual thought, noting the incomprehensible, terrifying connection he shares with the tortured souls of the homeless people filling the streets. Futile attempts to build a relationship with a girl that is at best indifferent, too often cruel, are absolutely heart-wrenching. Empathy is easily evoked. This life must be a kind of hell; but Miles bears a burden that looms even larger.

Guilt.

His initial episode occurred during a family visit to the beach. The loud, frightening seizure commanded the attention of not only his parents and younger siblings; but seemingly the entire beach was focused on Miles. Amid the mayhem his young brother, Teddy is abducted.

Schizo begins with Miles considering suicide, as a means of relief for those he loves; but he sees another way. Everyone can be happy again. He must rescue Teddy. His fast-paced, courageous, ludicrous, quest is gripping. The kaleidoscopic range of emotions; hope, love, confidence, fury, self-doubt, wholly exhaust the young man. Symptoms are exacerbated with the mental, physical and emotional fatigue and the metaphorical roller coaster speeds up until it is hurtling out of control, with this reader clinging tightly, truly invested. Never have I wished so desperately to reach into a tome and hold a character.

As this irresistible story furiously frenzies to an end; Mr. Sheff deftly, (and dare I say a bit smugly) pulls the rug out from under the reader. A tiny twist delivers a punch so powerful that this already magnificent book is catapulted to phenomenal.

Sidebar: I have been a huge fan of Mr. Sheff’s writing since he bared his soul and captured my heart in Tweak: Growing up on Methamphetamines. I feel an almost kinship…..a familiar fondness for the young Mr. Sheff; which only strengthened when he wrung out my heart in We All Fall Down: Living With Addiction.

Working with an amazing English teacher, I have the privilege of giving “Book Talks” to five high school classes. In addition to introducing and recommending a book; a couple copies of the book are donated to the classroom library and a couple of copies from my own tiny library are shared with the students. So, filled with confidence that the students would love this book, at least as much as I do, that when I told them that there were a few copies circulating, I also blurted out, “…if you go out and buy this book and it does NOT rock your socks; I’ll buy it back from you!”

Reviewed by jv poore, January 2015.